Winter Report Card: Toronto Blue Jays
With less than a month before pitchers and catchers report, we're checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there's still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2014. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
Toronto Blue Jays
2014 Results: 83-79 (.512), third place in the AL East (Hot Stove Preview)
Key Departures: RF Melky Cabrera, 3B/1B Juan Francisco, CF Anthony Gose, RHP Kendall Graveman, LHP J.A. Happ, RHP Casey Janssen, 3B/2B Brett Lawrie, 1B/DH Adam Lind, RHP Dustin McGowan*, RHP Brandon Morrow, LHP Sean Nolin, CF Colby Rasmus, RHP Sergio Santos (*free agent, still unsigned)
The Blue Jays made two huge acquisitions in November, signing top free-agent catcher Russell Martin and landing third baseman Josh Donaldson, an MVP candidate who is arguably the best position player to switch teams this winter, in a trade with Oakland. Since then, they have been relatively quiet, giving the impression that their offseason remains incomplete.
Counting members of the starting lineup who were more than a half-win above replacement last year, Toronto has lost Melky Cabrera, Adam Lind, Brett Lawrie and Colby Rasmus this offseason and have added only Donaldson, Martin and outfielder Michael Saunders. However looking at the WAR totals of those players on Baseball-Reference.com, the five departing starters — including catcher Dioner Navarro, who lost his job to Martin but remains on the roster — totaled just 10.0 WAR in 2014, while the three incoming regulars were worth 15.6 WAR last year. Donaldson and Martin alone have combined to average 12.5 WAR over the last two seasons, while Saunders, in what proved to be an injury-shortened breakout season, was worth 2.6 WAR last year in just 78 games.
Acquired from the Mariners for lefty swing-man J.A. Happ in early December, Saunders is entering his age-28 season with two team-controlled years remaining and should benefit greatly from the move from pitcher-friendly Safeco Field to the hitter-friendly Rogers Centre. Don't expect him to be a five-win player, but if he stays healthy he could neatly replace the 3.6 WAR the Jays got last year from Cabrera, the best player they parted with this winter.
As for Martin, he is unlikely to repeat the .290/.402/.430 batting line he compiled for Pittsburgh last year after hitting .225/.321/.395 over the previous three seasons, but the move to the Rogers Centre from PNC Park should soften his correction there. That's almost beside the point, however, because the Blue Jays clearly signed Martin for what he can do behind the plate as opposed to next to it. One of the best all-around defensive catchers in baseball, Martin landed a five-year, $82 million contract from Toronto, the largest in franchise history, to improve the team's run prevention, not its run production. An outstanding pitch-framer and –blocker who has thrown out 39 percent of attempting basestealers the last two years, Martin should have a significant impact on the young back-end of the Blue Jays' rotation (Marcus Stroman, Drew Hutchison and top prospect Aaron Sanchez) while also benefiting veteran contact pitcher Mark Buehrle (who needs no help controlling the running game but gets three-quarters of his strikes from the umpire rather than foul balls or swings-and-misses).
Martin has also said that he intends to catch knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. That won't be easy, but if Martin can pull it off, manager John Gibbons could be more selective about when he rests his No. 1 catcher, rather than having to do so by rote every time Dickey takes the mound. Martin catching Dickey would also allow Navarro to be the team's sole backup, eliminating the need for weak-hitting Josh Thole, who caught all 34 of Dickey's starts last year but hit just .248/.320/.278.
The big prize, however, is Donaldson. One of the best defensive players in baseball, Donaldson is a wizard at third base and has enough power in his bat to have hit 53 home runs over the last two years at Oakland's Coliseum. With the move to Rogers Centre, anything short of 30 home runs would be a disappointment. He has also drawn 76 walks in each of the last two seasons, resulting in on-base percentages roughly 85 points higher than his batting average. Indeed, the biggest difference between his 145 OPS+ in 2013 (when he finished fourth in the American League Most Valuable Player voting) and his 126 OPS+ in 2014 (when he finished eighth) was a 46-point drop in batting average, which corresponded to a slight increase in his strikeout rate. Given that those have been Donaldson's only two full major league seasons (he arrives in Toronto with four team-controlled years remaining, albeit as a 29-year-old who is an arbitration eligible Super-Two player), it's not clear exactly what his true level is in terms of batting average. Most likely it's closer to last year's .255 than 2013's .301, but even if he settles in as a .270 hitter, given his established power and walk rates, that would translate to a .270/.355/.470 line from an elite defender before even considering any power boost he might receive from his new ballpark.
Putting Donaldson alongside Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion in the Toronto lineup gives the Blue Jays a devastating trio of righthanded power hitters in the heart of the order. It also takes the pressure off Justin Smoak and rookie Dalton Pompey, whom the Jays hope can establish themselves at first base and in centerfield, respectively.
Unfinished business: Bullpen
Casey Janssen and Dustin McGowan weren't anything special last year, but they did combine to consume 127 2/3 relief innings, and with Aaron Sanchez, who was something special, expected to move into the rotation, that's 160 2/3 innings of a 3.47 ERA deleted from the Toronto bullpen. Marco Estrada, acquired from the Brewers for Adam Lind in what looked like a low-level salary dump of a platoon-challenged player with a chronic back issue, should be able to eat some of those innings, but he could also be needed in the rotation in the event of an injury or if any of the team's young starters pitches his way back to Triple A. There are still plenty of viable free agents out there, including Burke Badenhop, Francisco Rodriguez and Rafael Soriano, and the Blue Jays are said to be shopping for relievers as you read this, so don't be surprised to hear that they've signed someone soon. Just hope it's not Ronald Belisario.
Preliminary Grade: B+
Toronto may have overpaid for Martin, but it was right to be aggressive. The Jays are coming off their best finish in five years, the American League East remains up for grabs and they have the longest playoff drought in baseball, having failed to reach the postseason since winning the second of back-to-back World Series titles in 1993. It doesn't seem like a coincidence that Martin's teams have made the playoffs in seven of his nine major league seasons, or that after losing him to the Pirates after the 2012 season, the Yankees missed the postseason the next two years while Pittsburgh made it that far both times. As important as signing Martin may prove to be in the short term, however, landing Donaldson, an elite player who wasn't widely known to be available, was a major coup. It's hard not to give the Jays an A for that alone, but their grade is knocked down by the fact that first base, second base and centerfield remain question marks and the bullpen remains understaffed.
Not mentioned above, however, is the nifty little trade of former centerfield prospect Anthony Gose to the Tigers for second base prospect Devon Travis. Travis will be in major league camp this spring, will likely report to Triple A in April and could ultimately prove to be the solution at the keystone. It's not difficult to envision a 2016 Blue Jays lineup with Travis at second base and Pompey in center joining Martin and shortstop Jose Reyes up the middle, complementing the big bats of Bautista, Encarnacion and Donaldson, the first two of whom are due to become free agents after that season. All the more reason to have overspent on Martin this offseason.